What Lessons Can We Draw From the Vote on the Ukraine Aid Bill that Has Just Been Passed in the United States?

26 avril 2024
By Michael Stricof, Senior Lecturer at Aix-Marseille University's Laboratoire d'études et de recherche sur le monde anglophone (LERMA), specialised in US defence policy.

On Saturday April 20th, House Speaker Mike Johnson introduced four additional national security bills. Signed into law on April 24th by President Joe Biden, who has been calling for additional funding for six months, this is the first US funding for Ukraine since 2022. The United States will fund $95 billion in foreign aid, including $60 billion for Ukraine. The rest goes to Israel and Taiwan. A final measure would force the Chinese owners of TikTok to sell the company and impose additional sanctions on Russia and Iran.


Why did it take six months for aid to Ukraine to be voted through?

Following the invasion of Russia in February 2022, the US led the international response by providing $113 billion in aid, including around $50 billion in military aid, and coordinating the delivery of assistance from other allies. In the absence of further funding since December 2022, the last six months have seen a general shift in momentum in favour of Russia in the war.

As I wrote in early October 2023, the Biden administration’s funding request anticipated both Ukrainian needs and US political reality: it became much harder to provide additional aid once the US presidential campaign began. Partisan divisions were reducing the effectiveness of Congress to almost zero, and Trump had begun to speak out openly against further US support for Ukraine.

Since his election as Speaker of the US Congress in October 2023, incoming Republican Speaker Mike Johnson has refused to bring Ukraine funding to a vote in the House of Representatives, where a bipartisan majority would have clearly voted in favour of the bill, because a few extremists in his party opposed it.

Joe Biden and the Democrats in Congress have tried several times to obtain aid for Ukraine by linking it to other priorities, including aid for Israel following the attacks on 7 October. This failed to overcome the opposition of Trump and the speaker of the House of Representatives. First of all, the Republicans argued that the United States should look after the security of its own borders before funding the security of other countries. The Senate Democrats then negotiated a $20 billion funding bill to secure the border with Mexico with the Republicans in order to offer a quid pro quo and satisfy the Republicans. On 4 February, this bill was proposed to the Senate, containing almost $100 billion for international security, including around $60 billion for Ukraine.

On February 5th, Donald Trump publicly opposed the bill, as he did not want a border deal to be a campaign issue and remained sceptical about military assistance for Ukraine. Mike Johnson then claimed that the bill would be ‘dead on arrival’ if introduced in the House of Representatives and on 7 February, the bill was rejected by Senate Republicans, including part of the team that had negotiated it.

However, with a bipartisan majority of senators who have always supported military assistance to Ukraine and after the failure of the southern border security bill, the upper chamber passed a new national security bill that included $60 billion for Ukraine. But the speaker of the House of Representatives, Mike Johnson, had always refused to consider this bill until this reversal at the end of April.

Why did the Republicans in the House change their position?

It is unlikely that moral or geostrategic arguments about the need to fund Ukraine have suddenly become sufficient to explain Mike Johnson’s change of heart. The fact that Mike Johnson is now risking his seat as Speaker of the House of Representatives – extremists from the Trump wing of his party such as Marjorie Taylor Greene and Thomas Massie have been opposing military assistance to Ukraine and threatening to remove him from office since he took office – over the same bill he could have secured six months ago suggests that other factors need to be taken into account, two of which are quite clear:

First, Trump is weaker now than he was three or six months ago. He spent most of last week in court, earning the wrath of the media as the first former president to face a criminal trial in US history and for apparently falling asleep in the courtroom. At the same time, billionaire Trump’s finances appear to be in poor shape. After the IPO of Trump Media & Technology Group, which seemed to give Trump the much-needed injection of capital, the value of the shares has plummeted. His business in New York is threatened by a civil fraud trial that he lost but is currently appealing. Trump had difficulty finding a guarantor for bail in this case, a sign of economic weakness. Trump also faces three other potential criminal trials, one concerning his handling of classified documents, and two related to his efforts to overturn the 2020 election. He is also limiting his public appearances to rallies with his staunchest supporters. Visibly tired, withdrawn and beset by legal and financial difficulties, Donald Trump appears weakened. It’s not a matter of predicting how things will play out in November, but in April, when funding for Ukraine was finally considered by the House of Representatives, he is not at his most influential.

Secondly, being directly associated with Russian propaganda remains bad policy in the US. It has been clear for some time that Russian propaganda, or arguments so similar to Russian propaganda that they serve the same purpose, are commonplace among conspiratorial extremists in US politics. Since the beginning of April, these accusations have multiplied and received one more solid piece of evidence. On April 2nd, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, a Republican, said in an interview that Russian propaganda had ‘infected much of the base of my party’. On April 7th, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, also a Republican, reiterated this sentiment. On April 17th, the Washington Post reported on a secret Russian document provided by European intelligence services, which describes an ‘offensive information campaign’ aimed at weakening the US-led coalition of hostile countries and shifting geopolitical power to Russia and its allies. According to the document, the centrepiece of this policy is Ukraine, where the outcome of the war ‘will to a large extent determine the contours of the future world order’. This confirmation of Russian strategy was hardly needed, but such an explicit report, combined with criticism from the Republican Party, made any hesitation to support Ukraine look like treason rather than mere political disagreement.

Support for Ukraine depended, like all US spending, on US political priorities. The outcome of the 2024 election will define the future of US support for Ukraine and, with it, the wider geopolitical struggle that the Kremlin and most decision-makers in Washington see as central.

What lessons can be drawn from the impact of the debate on US foreign policy on the international stage?

Russia has clearly tried to reduce US support for Ukraine in particular and for NATO in general by influencing US policy. It supports extremist views on issues that are not always related to foreign policy, by encouraging the spread of endless conspiracy theories to favour extremist candidates, reduce Americans’ confidence in their institutions, and weaken the functioning of the State. In a dynamic of international relations where the United States remains a leader, influencing American politics, and also candidates, remains an important strategy for states.

Of course, there is old-fashioned corruption. Egypt bribed the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey. Foreign diplomats were known to spend at Trump’s Washington DC hotel to curry favour. Saudi Arabia’s $2bn investment in Jared Kushner’s investment fund can be most easily understood as a bribe for his positive support as the top US diplomat in the Middle East during his father-in-law’s tenure.

Other states are trying to buy influence indirectly. Qatar’s investment in the Brookings Institution, a leading think tank in Washington where many outgoing leaders, usually from the centre-left, spend time awaiting future appointments, represents an effort to influence policymakers in Washington. Many other institutions in and around Washington are funded and influenced in the same way.

Classic diplomacy can consist of influence campaigns, and changing the way a country talks about its state is a traditional strategy. Japan’s perfectly legal lobbying is being stepped up in Washington to guard against a Trump victory.

Directly targeting out-of-power leaders to break the political deadlock in Washington has become an important element of foreign influence. This is not limited to competitors, such as Russia, but also to allies. Another strange detail in the Ukraine funding saga is worth mentioning. On April 8th, British Foreign Secretary David Cameron visited Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago in an attempt to put direct pressure on him over Ukraine. Although the Foreign Office claimed that such meetings with opposition leaders in an election year were common practice, this was no simple effort to build positive relations in the event of a Trump victory in November.

His examples of foreign influence aimed at US policy reflect a centre/periphery or hegemon/partner dynamic in which the leading country, in this case the United States, is also the theatre of influence wooing from its periphery or partner nations. Just as the United States, with its great military and economic influence, shapes the policies of other countries through direct and indirect actions, so other countries will try to influence US policies through diplomacy, trade and, increasingly, by exerting direct pressure on US policy, which is one of the front lines in the battle over the current world system.


Translated by Deepl.
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